VII - The Man-child Born of a Virgin


Describing the growth of the mushroom ( boletos) , Pliny says: “the earth produces first a ‘womb’ (vulva)... and afterwards (the mushroom) itself inside the womb, like a yolk inside the egg; and the baby mushroom is just as fond of eating its coat as is the chicken.


The coat cracks when (the mushroom) first forms; presently, as it gets bigger, the coat is absorbed into the body of the footstalk (pediculi)... at first it is flimsier than froth, then it grows substantial like parchment, and then the mushroom - is born.1


More prosaically, perhaps, the process is thus described by a modern mycologist: “In the genus Amanita a membrane surrounds the young fungus. In addition to this wrapper or volva there is another membrane, stretching from the margin of the cap and joined to the stem, as in the mushroom.


Thus it is as if the,

“button stage” were surrounded by an outer skin. As the fungus develops this is torn apart. If its texture is sufficiently tenacious to hold it together, it is left as a cup at the base of the stem . . . With growth the membrane covering the gills tears and is left as a ring on the stem.”

Of the Amanita phalloides, the writer adds:

“Before the volva breaks the fungus looks somewhat like a pigeon’s egg half-buried, or like a small phallus ‘egg’. It is common in glades in woods and adjoining pastures after the first summer rains, and continues through early autumn.”2

It was the fertilization of the “womb” that most puzzled the ancients, and remained a mystery until the end of the last century. To Pliny the fungus had to be reckoned as one of the “greatest of the marvels of nature”, since it “belonged to a class of things that spring up spontaneously and cannot be grown from seed”.3 It was surely “among the most wonderful of all things” in that it could “spring up and live without a root”.4


Until the invention of the microscope the function of the spore, produced by each fungus in its millions, could not be appreciated. The mushroom has, indeed, no seed in the accepted sense, germinating and giving out a root and later a stem apex with or without seed leaves. The walls of each minute spore extrude to form thread-like tubes which branch further until all mass together to form the spongy flesh of the fungus.


The result is neither animal nor vegetable, and the mystery of its proper classification persisted until relatively modern times. Thus a sixteenth-century naturalist wrote:

“They are a sort of intermediate existence between plants and inanimate nature. In this respect fungi resemble zoophytes, which are intermediate between plants and animals.”5

One explanation for the creation of the mushroom without apparent seed was that the “womb” had been fertilized by thunder, since it was commonly observed that the fungi appeared after thunderstorms. Thus one name given them was Ceraunion, from the Greek keraunios, “thunderbolt”. Another was the Greek hudnon, probably derived from Sumerian *UD_NUN, “storm—seeded”.6


It was thus uniquely-begotten. The normal process of fructification had been by-passed. The seed had not fallen from some previous plant, to be nurtured by the earth until in turn it produced a root and stalk. The god had “spoken” and his creative “word” had been carried to earth by the storm-wind, angelic messenger of heaven, and been implanted directly into the volva.


The baby that resulted from this divine union was thus the “Son of God”, more truly representative of its heavenly father than any other form of plant or animal life. Here, in the tiny mushroom, was God manifest, the “Jesus” born of the Virgin “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation - in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell...“ (Col i :isff.).


The phallic form of the mushroom matched precisely that of his father, whom the Sumerians called ISKUR, “Mighty Penis”, the Se— mites Adad, or Hadad, “Big—father”, the Greeks Patër-Zeus, and the Romans Jupiter, “Father-god”.7 To see the mushroom was to see the Father, as in Jesus the uncomprehending Philip was urged to look for God: “He who has seen me has seen the Father. . . Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?” (John i4:9ff.). Even the detutns recognized him as “the Holy One of God” (Mark i :24), and it was as “the Holy Plant” that the sacred fungus came to be known throughout the ancient world.

The slimy juice of the mushroom which, in some phalloidic species, spills over the “glans” and clown the stem, seemed to the ancients like the viscous exudation of the genital organs prior to coitus and the seminal discharge at orgasm. The Hebrew word for “smooth, slimy” derives from a Sumerian phrase meaning “semen running to waste”,8 and figures in a number of biblical allusions to the mushroom.9


It was otherwise known as “spittle”, and Job asks if there is any taste in the “spittle of the mushroom” (as we should now read the name of that plant) (Job 6:6).10 To have “spittle in the mouth” was a euphemism in the Jewish Talmud for “semen in the vagina”, 11 and the close relationship between the two fluids resulted in the very widespread belief that spittle had strong curative and prophylactic properties.


Thus, as human semen was a cure for scorpion stings, according to Pliny,12 spittle was a repellent to snakes and an antidote to snake venom.13 Jesus is pictured making a clay poultice to lay over the eyes of the man born blind (John 9:6), mixing his spittle with dust, as Pliny reports that saliva used each morning as an eye ointment cured ophthalmia.14


Rain, the semen of the god, was spurted forth from the divine penis at his thunderous orgasm in the heavens, and was borne as “spittle” from the lips of the glans to earth on the storm wind.15 It was a unique concentration of this powerful spermatozoa in the juice of the “Holy Plant” that the Magi believed would give anyone anointed with it amazing power. They could “obtain every wish, banish fevers, and cure all diseases without exception”.16


So the Christian, the “smeared or anointed one”, received “knowledge of all things” by his “anointing from the Holy One” (I John 2:20). Thereafter he had need of no other teacher and remained for evermore endowed with all knowledge (v. 27). Whatever the full ingredients of the Christian unction may have been, they would certainly have included the aromatic gums and spices of the traditional Israelite anointing oil: myrrh, aromatic cane, cinnamon, and cassia, all representing the powerful semen of the god. Under certain enclosed conditions, a mixture of these substances rubbed on the skin could produce the kind of intoxicating belief in self-omniscience referred to in the New Testament.


Furthermore, the atmosphere of the oracular chamber would be charged with reek of sacred incense consisting of “sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense . . .“ (Exod 30:34), giving the kind of overpowering hypnotic effect referred to by an early Christian writer when he speaks of “the frenzy of a lying soothsayer” as a “mere intoxication produced by the reeking fumes of sacrifice”.17


That these ingredients formed only part of the sacred incense formula is well known. Josephus says there were thirteen elements,18 and the Talmud names eleven, plus salt, and a secret “herb” which was added to make the smoke rise in a vertical column before spreading outwards at the top.19


With the characteristic shape of the mushroom in mind, we can hazard a fair guess now at this secret ingredient. Knowledge and healing were two aspects of the same life-force. If to be rubbed with the “Holy Plant” was to receive divine knowledge, it was also to be cured of every sickness. James suggests that anyone of the Christian community who was sick should call the elders to anoint him with oil in the name of Jesus (Jas 5:14).


The Twelve are sent out among their fellow-men casting out demons and anointing the sick with oil (Mark 6:13). Healing by unction persisted in the Church until the twelfth century,20 and the anointing of the dying, the so-called “extreme unction” has persisted in the Roman Catholic Church to this day.21 The principle behind this practice remains the same: the god’s “seed—of— life”, semen, found in spring or rain water, in the sap or resins of plants and trees, and above all in the slimy mucus of the mushroom imparts life to the ailing or the dead..


Herein lies also the idea of embalming corpses with ointments and spices. They were not expected to halt decomposition, as Martha appreciated in the case of her four-day dead brother Lazarus (John 11:39), although in Egypt additional measures were taken also to preserve even the flesh. The Hebrew of the story of Joseph’s embalming for forty days uses the word “healers”22 for the practitioners of the craft (Gen 50:2), and the word for “embalm” means also “to come filly to life, mature”, as well as “make spicy”.23


The root goes back to Sumerian words for “spilling seed”, and the conception seems to have been to impart life and rebirth to the dead person in the underworld. So the two Marys come to the grave to anoint the dead Jesus (Mark 16:1; Luke 23:56) as did Nicodemus, bringing myrrh and aloes for the purpose (John 19:39), and as Mary, Martha’s sister, had earlier anointed his feet with nard, anticipating the event (John 12:3).


Things, as well as people, could be anointed with semen so that they became “holy”, that is, separated to the god’s service. The Semitic root q-d-sh, “holy”, is, as its probable root meaning indicates, fundamentally a fertility word. It has to do specifically with the uterus,24 the “holy of holies” of the female, and the inner sanctuary of the temple.


So the cultic furniture was anointed (Exod 3:26, 40:10 Lev 8:ii), and particularly the altar, that replica of the penis standing before the open portals of the temple. In the story of Jacob and his ladder dream, when he saw angels going up and down between earth and heaven, he took the stone on which he had laid his head in sleep and erected it as a pillar and “poured oil on the top of it” (Gen 28:10W, cp. Gen 35:14).25


The anointing into holiness of kings and priests is again largely imitative in character.


The prime duty of the king was to ensure the fertility of the land and well-being of his subjects. Many of the Greek and Semitic words for “lord” and “lordship” convey this idea when seen in their original form.26 The priest’s function was also to see that the god played his part in inseminating the land. The most common Hebrew word for “priest”, köhën, familiar as a well-known Jewish surname, comes from a Sumerian title, GU-EN-NA, literally, “guardian of semen”.27 He had charge of the god’s house, regarded as the uterus where he enacted his role of creator.28

Pouring the god’s semen over 3 Section through the calyx and fruit of Henbane (after F. Howarth, in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities [Loeb, iv] p. 399) the heads of these dignitaries was intended to represent them as “gods”, replicas of the divine penis in heaven.29


The head-gear of the Jewish high priest, called simply a “turban” in the Old Testament (Exod 28:4, etc), was apparently intended to represent the glans penis. Josephus has an extended account of this piece of ceremonial attire.30 He describes it by alluding to several different plants, all of them having a mushroom relevance. One, indeed, Sideritis, actually is a name of the Holy Plant.31


First, the priest dons a skull—cap (Greek pilos, Latin pileus, incidentally, the botanist’s name for the cap of the mushroom), as worn by the generality of the priesthood. Over this he puts a turban of violet embroidery, further encircled with a crown of gold. Sprouting from the top of this was a golden calyx, or seed—vessel.


In order to satisfy the curiosity of his remarkably ill-informed readers, Josephus goes on to describe in great detail the nature and shape of the calyx, “for those unfamiliar with it”, comparing it with that of Henbane, Hyoscyamus niger (fig. 3).

“Imagine”, says our ingenious author, “a ball cut into two: the calyx at the stem presents the lower half of this, emerging from its base in a rounded form.”

He then enlarges on the graceful turn of the sides to the “rim” on to which the “hemispherical lid adheres closely”.


This calyx, he says, is enveloped in a husk or sheath which detaches itself of its own accord as the fruit begins to develop. This is not a very accurate account of the Henbane calyx and its ovary, but it well suits the volva of the Boletus mushroom as the embryo begins to expand. Josephus speaks further of the ragged edge of the lip of the calyx, “like thorns quite sharp at the end”.


This is presumably an allusion to the three— tiered golden crown surrounding the violet turban,82 and in human terms to the edge of the circumcised foreskin. The Bible makes no mention of a golden crown, but it does speak of a “plate of gold” (sis), affixed to the front of the priest’s turban (Exod 28 :36).33


As Josephus was well aware, the word sis is used in late Hebrew for the fringe of shreds of the prepuce remaining after an insufficient circumcision operation, a kind of “crown of thorns” around the bared glans.34 In mushroom terms, this “fringe” will be the membrane that joins the margin of the pileus cap to the stem before its full development. When the skin breaks it remains as a ragged ring around the stem. New Testament imagery has Jesus crowned with thorns and clothed with royal purple (John 19:2).


The deep red cap of the sacred mushroom added to its phallic significance in the eyes of the ancients and provided them with words for that color, as will be noted. These “glans-crowned” officials, kings and priests, were then, the messiahs, or christs, said in the Ol Testament to be “smeared with Yahweh” (I Sam 26:11; Ps 2:2), “having the consecration, or crown of God’s unction upon them” (Lev 21:12).


In that holy condition they were not allowed to leave the sanctuary precincts (Lev 21:12; cp. 10:7), unless by some ill chance and erotic dream, they were to spoil their ritual purity by inadvertently mixing their own semen on their bodies with that of the god. In that case they were obliged to leave the sacred area of the Jerusalem temple by an underground passage leading to the profane area of the city.35 Both the Semitic and the Greek words for “christ”, the “anointed, or smeared one”, came from Sumerian terms for semen or resinous saps, MASh and SKEM.


Used as descriptive titles in that language, they appear as a “MASh—man”, exorcist, that is, the priest who drives away demons, and as a “ShEM-man” a compounder of perfumes, the equivalent of the Old Testament mixer of the holy anointing-oils.36 Semitic furthermore combined both Sumerian words into a new root sh—m—sh, “serve” (tables, as a steward; the temple, as a priest; the heavenly throne, as an angel; the genitals, as a penis or a vulva).


Thus the noun means a steward, priest, angel or prostitute.37 An independently derived form very early on came to be used for the greatest “copulator” of all, the sun, Hebrew shemesh, whose fiery glans every evening plunged glowing into the open vulva of the earth, and in the morning “came forth like a bridegroom from his marriage chamber” (Ps 19:5).38


Another important word for a servitor of god in Greek was therapeutes, the verb therapeuo implying both service to god and attendance on the body as physicians, in which sense we have derived our “therapy”, “therapeutics”, and the like. This root also has a sexual origin, as a “giver of life”, and is connected with the Sumerian DARA, “beget”, appearing as a name for the fertility and storm gods Ea and Adad.39

The word therapeutës is of particular interest since it was the title of an ascetic, contemplative sect who have often been compared with the Essenes. They lived mainly in Egypt, at the turn of the era, but probably had a long history prior to that date. We know of them through the writings of the first-century Philo,40 and Eusebius, the Church historian (third and fourth century) 41


The Therapeutae, as they are called, lived in mixed communities, cut off from their fellow-men, rejecting personal property, completely celibate, the women being mostly “aged virgins …who have kept their chastity of their own free will in their ardent desire for learning”. They all met together only on the Sabbath, the women being separated from the men by a dividing partition in the assembly hail.


But every seventh week after supper, both sexes mingled, singing and dancing until dawn, when they returned to their own quarters. Eusebius was so struck by the likeness of the Therapeutae to Christian monks of his own day that he thought they may have been Christians, and that the books referred to by Philo as “the writings of ancient men who were the founders of the sect” may have been the Gospels and Epistles through which they had become converted.


The Church Fathers followed him on this and even Jerome reckoned the Jewish Philo as among the “Church historians”. We hear, too, of an unorthodox Christian sect called the Sampsaeans (Greek Sampsënoi), whose name is certainly connected with the Semitic root sh-m—sh (and so has been hitherto thought to indicate “sun (shemesh)-worshippers”).42


Epiphanius, the fourth-century Christian writer, links these people with the Essenes but thought their Christianity was of a spurious kind, something between Judaism and the true faith.43 Apparently in his time they dwelt in Transjordan, in Peraea, on the borders of ancient Moab, and by the eastern shores of the Dead Sea. Whatever their sectarian connections, their name, as we can now see, demonstrates a clear philological relationship with both the Essenes, “healers”, “life—givers”, the Therapeutae, and the Christians.

In the phallic mushroom, the “man-child” born of the “virgin” womb, we have the reality behind the Christ figure of the New Testament story. In a sense he is representative also of the initiates of the cult, “Christians”, or “smeared with semen”, as the name means.


By imitating the mushroom, as well as by eating it and sucking its juice, or “blood”, the Christian was taking unto himself the panoply of his god, as the priests in the sanctuary also anointed themselves with the god’s spermatozoa found in the juices and resins of special plants and trees. As the priests “served” the god in the temple, the symbolic womb of divine creation, so the Christians and their cultic associates worshipped their god and mystically involved themselves in the creative process. In the language of the mystery cults they sought to be “born again”, when, purged afresh of past sin, they could apprehend the god in a drug induced ecstasy.

Fully to understand the part played by women in the mushroom cult it is necessary to appreciate their role in the creative process itself. The fungus represented a microcosm of the female part of the birth cycle. The “man—child” was born from a womb or volva and its gestation and parturition was as much a part of the female worshipper as the birth of a human baby required the active participation of the mother and the midwife.


In the following chapters, then, we shall pay special attention to the woman and her special contribution to the process of conception and birth, her religious role as a cultic prostitute, and the part played by her ritual lamentation in the raising of the sacred mushroom.


Back to Contents